STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Two days after the University of Wisconsin football team lost to Ohio State in overtime, Badgers coach Bret Bielema was asked about his team’s inability to win close games.

I’m not sure who the questioner was, but Bielema chided the reporter for not checking the facts and noticing that the Badgers have won a lot of games by a touchdown or less, too.

But while that may have been true earlier in Bielema’s tenure, a growing body of evidence that suggests UW has developed a major problem closing out games. The latest example came Saturday, when the Badgers’ frustrating, so-close-yet-so-far-away season took another downward turn with a 24-21 overtime loss to fired-up Penn State at Beaver Stadium.

The Badgers gave their usual noble effort, but the loss was eerily similar to their first four defeats this season. Earlier, UW put itself in position to beat Oregon State, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State but couldn’t close the deal. Including Penn State, the last three losses have been in overtime.

“It’s incredibly disappointing,” quarterback Curt Phillips said. “We’ve been in positions to win them and we just haven’t done it. We’ve got to figure out what this is that’s holding us back from finishing them and learn from it.”

Unfortunately, the time for learning is over. Due to NCAA sanctions at Penn State and Ohio State, UW qualified for next week’s Big Ten Conference title game in Indianapolis. The Badgers will take their 4-4 conference record to play a 7-1 Nebraska team that beat them by — you guessed it — three points two months ago.

Now, the task is clear-cut. If the Badgers want to win a third consecutive Big Ten title, they’ll have to break their cycle of losing close games to the better teams on their schedule.

A thorough check of UW’s fact book revealed that it has had a problem finishing for a while. Dating back to the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, the Badgers’ last nine losses have been by a touchdown or less. During that time, UW has won three close games, against non-conference foes Northern Iowa and Utah State at home this season and Michigan State in last year’s Big Ten title game.

What’s most disturbing about this season is the losses are following a distinct pattern. The Badgers start fast, though often the lead isn’t as big as it should be. Then they lose their mojo on offense, watch their defense wear down when the offense can’t run the ball effectively and eventually fall when they can’t make the necessary plays at the end.

Then it’s rinse and repeat.

“I don’t know what it is. I really don’t,” center Travis Frederick said. “Today we started well and we ended well, but we didn’t do a whole lot in the middle. It’s just a matter of being able to play four quarters and continuing to build the lead instead of getting a lead and kind of just sitting on it. We need to be able to continue to strike. And I don’t know what it is that’s causing us not to be able to do that, but there certainly is something.”

The first place people should look is the coach. Bielema’s late-game decisions have become a lightning rod for disgruntled fans, but there is so much more to UW’s problem than that. Still, Bielema sets the tone and, this year anyway, the Badgers have been conservative, often admittedly, on offense.

After so many close losses, it is fair to wonder if UW just isn’t good enough to beat good teams anymore. Bielema’s best explanation Saturday was that injuries are the reason UW can’t get over the hump in close games.

“We’re running out of guys that can just get it done in the fourth quarter and in overtime,” he said.

This much we do know: UW has been an error-prone team under Bielema. For a few years, it was special teams. Last year, it was breakdowns in pass coverage at critical times. This year, the quarterback position has held UW back.

The uncertainty and inexperience at the position — UW has started three different quarterbacks — has caused UW to call games conservatively. The coaches don’t seem to trust their quarterbacks’ ability or experience, so they seldom throw the ball down the field and run far too often on third down. Those things contribute to UW’s consistent inability to convert on third down.

UW was 5-for-16 on the money down against Penn State, leading to punts on eight consecutive possessions after they took a 14-7 lead. Penn State, like other teams before it, loaded up against the run and dared UW to throw, something it couldn’t do consistently.

Now, the Badgers will get one more chance to prove that winning close games isn’t a problem.

“The way this year has set up, it’s kind of eerie that we’re going to get another chance at one of those close games,” Frederick said. “We’ve lost these close games and maybe next week is a chance for our redemption, a chance to justify that we can play in those games.”

Yes, it’s a chance. But it’s a last chance.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com or 608-252-6172.

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(21) comments

hermosabadger
hermosabadger

23-1: Badgers coach Bret Bielema’s career record vs. Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Purdue.

15-18: Bielema’s career record vs. the rest of the Big Ten.

enough said?

JGreaves
JGreaves

Gene Chizek is now available and calls a very good game offensively. He just didn't have anywhere close to the talent level he did in his BCS title year at Auburn, on both sides of the ball. Canada is useless and way too conservative. We need a kicker -Phillip Welch looks like Jan Stenerud and Chester Marcol combined right now compared to Kyle French.

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

yes before barry this program was a joke. And this program has improved greatly since then. However, let's honestly look at the program for the last decade.

How many rose bowl wins? None
How many BCS bowl wins? None

This program has fallen since 2000. And now let's see what happens with Michigan, Ohio St, and Nebraska starting to peak, and all three programs have coaches that could be there for years.
UWs record against teams ranked under BB is pathetic for a program of UWs stature. BB is outcoached in most games, and his end of game/time management is horrible. BB has cost his team numerous games and that was with the conference being down. What do u think will happen when the conference comes back stronger

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

UW made it to the rose bowls bc of a downturn in the conference! They didn't make it bc they rose up and surpassed OSU, Michigan, etc. In 2010 they tied with OSU, and MSU. (No one else in the conference finished with a winning conference record). Last year, OSU finished with a 6 and 6 record and PSU had its scandal. No one but UW could represent the division last year too.

Going foward with Mich and Nebraska back and with OSU so much better with urban meyer, UW will NEVER play in the big ten title game much less a big ten title with BB as coach

LarryHisle
LarryHisle

Thank you for the courage to write this column. You covered the Morton years and understand how much the Badger program has improved. Could it be that we can not sustain this level of excellence? Are Bielema and Alvarez a victim of their own success?

w8rh3wk5
w8rh3wk5

Here's the facts:

UW wins are Northern Illinois, Utah St, UTEP, Minn, Purdue, Indiana, and Illinois
UW losses are Ore St, Nebraska, MSU, OSU, PSU....

Now look at previous seasons..... This is not uncommon. UW has a couple of big wins under BB, but basically BBs record is inflated bc of a weak nonconference schedule and beating up the bottom feeders of the BIG TEN (Illi, Ind, Purdue, Minn)

LarryHisle
LarryHisle

People are flat out crazy! Can anyone say Don Morton? Do we want to go back to those days?
Every program is going to have their set backs during a season. The Big Ten conference is a joke but soon we will see the rise of Ohio State and Penn State if they keep their coaches intact.

We might go back to the Morton days (record wise) but at least we will be competitive. We have not had a marquee win this season and frankly wonder if we deserve to be in the Rose Bowl. I am sure the Big Ten does not want to see a 7-4 team in a BCS bowl game. WE HAVE A GOOD SHOT AT WINNING THIS GAME!

Bielema lost a ton of staff, a QB, and had a rash of injuries towards the end of the season.Many coaches could not recover from those "trials and tribulations". (I have to admit I am getting sick of BB using this phrase)

I am a huge Badger fan and naturally want the team in the Rose Bowl. Recruiting will be crucial this year but how many programs can boast of having the running back with the most yards in NCAA history (Dayne) and the running back with the most TD's in NCAA history! (Ball)Could anyone have imagined that when Alvarez came into the program??? Two consecutive Rose Bowl appearances with Bielema??? People need to get a life.

retired
retired

How come there's been no mention of the fact, we don't have a kicker ?? That points the finger to the lack luster coaching staff again. There is no way the badgers will go anywhere with this coaching staff. So don't get your hopes up.

badgerfan1
badgerfan1

First of all I agree with those who have said they should have lined up and go for 2. Two weeks ago I also felt the same way. In both games their offense had been virtually asleep until the last scoring series and I knew (as did the opposing coaching staff) that in the overtime they would again try to run the ball first and foremost. It was so predictable. On the one hand this coaching staff has no apparent confidence in the qb and the receivers (probably for good reason) but you just can not win one dimensional (especially with this line). Secindly this coaching staff has totally bought in to the theory that the "Wisconsin Way" is to pound the ball. With Chryst as head of the offense he was able to counter balance that nonsense to some extent but he is gone (pulling big upsets out East). So Bielema et al when they get an early lead try to run out the clock from the 2nd quarter on and again with this offensive line they simply can not pound the ball. The over all problem of course goes deeper--they just do not recruit the talent needed to consistently win in big games.

Acapitalidea
Acapitalidea

If the Badgers again find themselves an extra point away from sending the game into overtime, I trust Bielema has learned by now that he might as well try a two point conversion and either win the game or put us out of our misery right away. In spite of dropped balls, blown coverages, costly penalties and questionable play calling, Wisconsin still had a chance to win.The momentum and emotion were clearly with Penn State, so use common sense, BB, and go for the win. It was unfair, perhaps unrealistic, to expect French to make that last field goal try given the hostile crowd, weather, distance and his unreliability. Going for a first down made more sense. Hindsight is perfect, but the coaching decisions have been too frequently imperfect.

Meanwhile Ohio State goes undefeated and continues to attract highly rated recruits. Bielema is moving the football team in the wrong direction, but a high profile, big name, successful coach would require complete autonomy, and that's not going to happen while Alvarez is AD. So, in reality, Alvarez is moving the football team in the wrong direction as well.

foodanddrink
foodanddrink

Imagine what our record is if it wasn't a massively down year in a terrible conference. Joke.

seered
seered

Interesting how the players have no clue what is going wrong, so that must mean their coaches have no idea, which means BB has no clue either.
So apparently there is nothing wrong?
It's business as usual, it is what is. Are they all simply in denial?
This year is pretty much over, so what about next year? Same ole M.O? Everyone, coaches and players definitely need a gut check and step it up. Ya sure we fans are spoiled so we deserve better!! 7-7 season is unacceptable.

foodanddrink
foodanddrink

Thank you for standing up for your readers Oates. If only more writers would actually say what the problem is we could all move forward together. There are a lot of media guys on the "inside" that dare not say a word for fear of being shunned, especially radio. Having worked in the the athletic dept., it's like the damn mafia, I kid you not. I'm glad you had the gull to write this column.

hackvrod
hackvrod

Why is it that bielema and his staff can't recruit qbs or wide receivers? It's time for a change. Stave's not the answer. If Bart Houston doesn't pan out next yr and win the starting qb job, we are doomed. And our best wide receiver is a walk on. What a joke. I'm a season ticket holder who is seriously thinking of not renewing next yr. Stinkin Ohio St will own our division for the foreseeable future. What a bleak outlook.

gobi
gobi

Don't renew, it's the only way Barry, et al will hear the unhappiness over what is now a very overpriced entertainment product.

Harvey
Harvey

Anybody want to see Wisconsin play 10-2 Stanford or 9-3 UCLA in the Rose Bowl in front of a national T.V. audience? Anybody? Anybody?

gobi
gobi

Watched parts of the game yesterday, walked part of the Ice Age Trail (awesome late fall weather!) and took a nap too. Look, nothing will change unless fans stop going to games and stop contributing to the teams. It's a business, and as long as the business makes money, it's a good deal for the athletic department and those coaches that are highly compensated. Wins are a bonus. Stop feeding the athletic beast, it's the only way change is made.

FreeLiberty
FreeLiberty

Given that Badgers can't win in OT, why not go for 2 at the end of the game to go for the win. No different than in OT and win or lose right there given Kyle French couldn't kick a can down the road 3 feet? I was screaming at the TV to go for 2. Nope. More of the same. I agree with Shoes11 - BB has to go and take Matt Canada with him. But that ain't gonna happen until until BA is gone. And then maybe we can get rid of Eaves and his NHL feeder system of superstars and mediocre Wisconsin talent. I'm about to give up my season tickets.

oldtimer82
oldtimer82

The problem is BA is no dummy and he does realize this but he is not going to admit that it is his own fault in the bypassing of UW hiring procedures in the search for coaches.As long as the stadium is filled every week nothing will change and it will get worse before it gets better.

bpro
bpro

1 thing has remained constant for 20+ years: The D-FENCE has consistently been porous & in order to become a legit strong program the defensive unit needs to perform well 85%+ of the time. We see an occasional great defensive game, but it is the exception according to long term history! Now, certainly BB has proved he is unable to consistently contribute to winning during game-time events.

shoes11
shoes11

What people are failing to realize is that BB is a leader by committee. His players set the tone and the quality of play for each game. When BA finally realizes this, you'll see a new head strong coach in Bucky land. Until then be prepared for mediocre. New direction is needed soon.

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